Toward the end of yesterday’s daf, Rabbis Hiyya, Elazar and Hanina all gave their own interpretations of the verse “God understands its ways and He knows its place” (Job 28:23) — each offering a different reason God would exile the Jewish people to Babylonia while the Romans controlled the holy land of Israel. Each successive explanation offers a silver lining to the pain of exile. Rabbi Hiyya says the Babylonians are less cruel than the Romans. Rabbi Elazar says exile signals future redemption. And Rabbi Hanina points out that at least the local language is easy for Hebrew speakers, so the exiles will study more Torah. Rabbi Yohanan says it’s because Babylonia is where our ancestors were from. But on today’s page we get what initially appears to be a very strange answer.
Ulla said: in order to eat dates and engage in Torah study.
That’s right. Dates. (To be fair, the dates in Babylonia were delicious and plentiful.) Then the Gemara tells a story:
Ulla visited Pumbedita and his hosts brought him a basket of dates. He said to them: How many baskets of dates like these can one purchase for a zuz? They said to him: three for a zuz. He said: A basketful of date honey for just a single zuz! And yet the Babylonians do not engage in more Torah study?
Ulla, who was from the Land of Israel, visited his colleagues in Pumbetida (in Babylonia) and said to himself: wow, if food were as cheap for me as it is for them I would have so much more time for Torah study! (Note: Being a rabbi didn’t always pay the bills. Many of the talmudic rabbis had day jobs.) It’s the classic thought experiment: what would you do if you were blessed with sudden wealth — if you won the lottery? (Cue Fiddler’s “If I Were a Rich Man” or “If I Ruled the World” by Nas.)
But Ulla’s judgement, that the Babylonian Jews have nothing to worry on account of the plentiful dates about and that they should study more Torah, is short lived:
That night, the dates afflicted him.
Ulla said: A basketful of lethal poison sells for a zuz in Babylonia, and yet the Babylonians still engage in Torah study!
That great sage, the Notorious B.I.G., once said, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” Perhaps he learned this from studying Talmud. We often believe, as it seems Ulla did, that if we had more money, we would have more time to do what we really want (in Ulla’s case, study Torah). And it is true that if we are working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet, we don’t have much time left for other things we hold as important in life. Yet, it is also true that wealth comes with problems of its own. As Hillel says in Pirke Avot 2:7, “The more property, the more anxiety.”
Ulla’s reversal is swift. He goes from wondering why the wealthy don’t spend more time studying Torah, to wondering how they manage to spend so much time studying Torah.
Many of us have lived both sides of this coin. Those of us who are financially successful (however that is defined) struggle to find “free time” for deeper engagement with things like Torah study. And those of us who are harried and over-scheduled still find time to make it happen.
So, thanks for studying Talmud with us. See you tomorrow!